Panel puts block on Saputo

Canadian dairy group Saputo's takeover bid for Warrnambool Cheese & Butter has been thrown into disarray after the Takeovers Panel ordered it to stop buying shares in the Australian milk processor.

Canadian dairy group Saputo's takeover bid for Warrnambool Cheese & Butter has been thrown into disarray after the Takeovers Panel ordered it to stop buying shares in the Australian milk processor.

The order, made after an application by rival suitor Murray Goulburn, was announced to the market on Friday afternoon as Saputo revealed it had amassed a 9.65 per cent stake.

Just a week ago Saputo had less than 1 per cent of Warrnambool, but acceptances have started to flow in after the Canadian group this week conditionally sweetened its bid to $9.20 a share.

Murray Goulburn, Australia's biggest dairy company, lodged the application with the panel on Wednesday and the following day sweetened its own bid to $9.50 a share, valuing WCB at $533 million.

In addition the milk co-operative is urging the Warrnambool board to reconsider paying shareholders a special dividend, which would take its bid to $10.06.

Warrnambool this week scrapped its plan to pay a 56ยข franking credit if the holding of its preferred bidder, Saputo, exceeded 50 per cent.

The panel ordered Saputo not to "take any further steps to process any acceptances received under its bid for Warrnambool".

Murray Goulburn had previously complained that Saputo's sweetened offer was in fact a lower offer than its previous one because it excluded the special dividend.

The Takeovers Panel, led by fund manager Andrew Sisson, is yet to release reasons for its decision to freeze Saputo's bid.

The move came as New Zealand's Fonterra spent $14.7 million to boost its stake in NSW processor Bega Cheese, which is also a bidder for Warrnambool. Fonterra bought 3 million shares at $4.89 each, to lift its stake in Bega to 9.06 per cent. Earlier this month Fonterra bought 9.3 million shares in Bega at $4.95 as part of a blocking stake, aimed at securing its position in the event Bega became a takeover target.

Fonterra finalised its purchase of Tamar Valley Dairy this week, securing control of the small Tasmanian yoghurt business from a voluntary administration sale.

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